Issue #88 | Food Investigators | How to Spot a Food Fraud Perp | Eating Ochratoxin A | The Nutella Empire |
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Mycotoxins - Should we be worried about ochratoxin A in our food?
(Non-boring) Food Safety News and Resources from the past week
Food fraud perps - repeat offenders and desperate entrepreneurs
Learn how to be a food outbreak investigator
The origins of Nutella and Ferrero (a good long read)
Food fraud news, incidents and updates
Happy Mother’s Day to all the mums out there, I hope you had a lovely day yesterday. Welcome to Issue 88 of The Rotten Apple.
This week I’m looking forward to our second live online meetup. Our first meet-up was really enjoyable, with a small group discussing food safety challenges in our countries. We discussed the lack of food safety auditing expertise and I learned you can make vegan dog treats by injection moulding 🐕! Get the details for this week’s meet-up on our live events page. It would be great to see you there.
This issue starts with mycotoxins, specifically ochratoxin A. Is there too much ochratoxin in our diet? Perhaps, but it’s complicated. Thank you to Maurizio Paleologo Oriundi from Affidia Journal 👏 for his contributions.
This week’s food safety news has a couple of unusual recalls, including one that affects millions of pounds of product and could give rise to a bunch of allergen-related recalls. Also this week, could you spot a food fraudster? Hear about four more perpetrators and learn to spot the red flags.
Plus, the CDC is teaching people how to investigate foodborne illness outbreaks on YouTube … okay….? Our ‘Just for Fun’ this week is a long read about the origins of the Ferrero food empire. Product development techs will love it!
As always, this issue ends with food fraud incidents and horizon scanning updates below the paywall. You can check it out - and all the other benefits of a paid subscription - with a free 7 day trial, just click the green button on the paywall.
Thank you for reading, and have a lovely week,
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Cover image: Courtesy of Affidia Journal
More on Mycotoxins (and It’s Not Good)
After last week’s ‘Good Mould / Bad Mould’ article, I started seeing mycotoxin news everywhere.
It’s a classic case of the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon. Or is it?
Mould contamination and mycotoxin risks are increasingly seen in places that have not had to worry about them before. It’s a global warming thing and it sucks.
One group of professionals that is working to help protect consumers from mycotoxins is analytical chemists. Maurizio Paleologo Oriundi from Affidia Journal, which provides high-level scientific-analytical, technical and regulatory food safety information, explored the new exposure guidance for a common mycotoxin last week and came to some concerning conclusions. Here are his thoughts:
“Mycotoxins. Ochratoxin A
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), in its most recent risk assessment for ochratoxin A (2020), stated that “The mean exposure estimates ranged from 0.64 to 17.79 nanograms per kilogram of body weight per day across dietary surveys and age groups.”
Translation for non-toxicologist: In Europe, we get with our food an amount of ochratoxin per day of about 2 - 20 ng/kg, which means, in a man of 70 kg, between 140 and 1400 ng of ochratoxin per day. This is an amount of ochratoxin that could increase the risk of cancer, in several consumer groups. The reason is that ochratoxin is present in many foodstuffs.
To better understand this, we tried to calculate a realistic exposure of a European citizen, who is unaware of this risk.
Here is our calculation:
Yogurt = 0 ng
Raisins = 25 ng (5 ppb, 5 g)
Pumpkin seed = 10 ng (5 ppb, 2 g)
Muesli = 50 ng (5 ppb, 10 g)
Food supplement = 10 ng (10 ppb, 1 g)
Fresh fruit = 0 ng
Breakfast total = 95 ng
Wine = 20 ng (0,20 ppb, 100 ml)
Pistachios = 20 ng (2 ppb, 10 g)
Pasta “aglio olio e peperoncino” (chilli, garlic and oliven oil) = 62 ng
Garlic = 6 ng (2 ppb, 3 g)
Chilli = 6 ng (6 ppb, 1 g)
Pasta = 50 ng (0,5 ppb, 100 g)
Coffee = 5 ng (2 ppb in the roasted coffee)
Main meal total = 107 ng
Salad = 0 ng
Cheese = 40 ng (0.5 ppb, 80 g)
Ham = 40 ng 0.5 ppb, 80 g)
Coffee = 5 ng
Chocolate = 20 ng (1 ppb, 20g)
Dinner total = 105 ng
So, at the end of the day:
95 + 107 + 105 = 307 ng .…we are about 3 times above the safe level.”
Thank you, Maurizio for generously sharing your calculations.
Should we be concerned about this?
Firstly, ‘safe’ levels of ochratoxin A are not black and white. The EFSA previously set a safe limit of 120 ng per kg of body weight per week (= 1,200 ng per day for a 70 kg man), but they now say that figure is “no longer valid”.
The EFSA tried to figure out new ‘safe’ levels in their 2020 risk assessment and ended up with a convoluted system of ‘margins of exposure’ (MOE) for different consumer groups such as toddlers, adults, pregnant women, elderly and for different classes of organ damage.
The problem is that you can’t just feed ochratoxin to people and see what happens. It’s thought to be a human carcinogen but not considered to be acutely toxic. This means you would need to impose a lifetime of controlled exposure on your human test subjects to discover ‘unsafe’ levels. Ethics committees probably won’t be on board with that!
The EFSA’s 2020 risk assessment reported MOE levels for most consumer groups to be well outside the range they consider to be of ‘low health concern’ (refer to Table 19 in the report). That is, when it comes to exposure to ochratoxins we should be quite concerned, noting that more research is needed and there was a high uncertainty in the EFSA’s results.
The worst foods for ochratoxin, according to the EFSA risk assessment are ‘Plant extract formula’, ‘Flavourings or essences’ (both containing liquorice extracts) and ‘Chili pepper’.
The largest contributors to ochratoxin in European diets are ‘Preserved meat’, ‘Cheese’ and ‘Grains and grain-based products’. For toddlers and children, dried and fresh fruits including grapes, figs and dates plus fruit juices and nectars also contributed. Liquorice-based sweets contributed to ochratoxin intake in countries where these are commonly consumed.
🍏 Mycotoxins Risk Update – A Webinar, 25th May 🍏
Affidia Journal is hosting a paid webinar about new EU limits for mycotoxins, analytical methods, post-harvest mitigations and sample preparation on 25th May. Learn more at the link below.
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Food Safety News and Resources
Click the link below for a carefully handcrafted selection of food safety news and resources from around the globe. It’s been expertly curated (by me! 😎) and is free from filler, fluff and promotional junk.
Meet (More) Food Fraud Perpetrators
In last week’s issue, we looked at the motivations behind food fraud, and discovered that food fraud comes in many ‘flavours’. From spices that contain illegal colourants, such as lead chromate in turmeric, to ‘organic’ grains that are shipped with forged documents, the types of frauds that are perpetrated with food are many and varied.
Consumers have been victims of food fraud for as long as trade itself; medieval bread was adulterated with chalk, ancient Roman wine was sweetened with lead, British citizens were swindled by mustard merchants and more recently, baby formula and pet food have had their apparent protein content illegally enhanced with the addition of melamine.
The motivation for financial gain experienced by the millers and wine-sellers of ancient times remains today and is the defining characteristic of the crimes that we now refer to as food fraud.
Anti-fraud operations routinely uncover large networks of organised criminals working together to manufacture and supply fraudulent foods for financial gain. But organised crime gang members are not the only type of food fraud perpetrator. There are many different people involved with food fraud and each has his or her own motivations.
The artisan food entrepreneur
Ms Natalie Crayton owned an artisan sea salt business in Scotland. Artisan salt typically sells in retail stores for three to five times the price of ‘ordinary’ table salt. In May of 2017, Ms Crayton’s business, Hebridean Sea Salt, was accused by local authorities of deceiving consumers by claiming that the salt was hand-produced from the waters of the Hebrides.
Investigations, which commenced after authorities were tipped off by a former employee revealed that more than 80% of the product did not originate in the Hebrides but was imported from elsewhere. Ms Crayton claimed that the foreign salt crystals were used to ‘seed’ the Hebridean water to create the product, a practice which is legitimate, but usually achieved with very much lower percentages of added seed crystal.
What is to be gained by swapping out some of the locally made salt with imported salt? Of course that depends on the cost of production of the local salt versus the cost of the imported salt.
At the time, Alibaba’s price for wholesale food grade sea salt was between US$45 and $1000 per tonne, roughly equivalent to £0.03 to £0.77 per kg. If an artisan producer who makes local salt at a cost of £3 per kg with a gross margin of two percent could replace just 30% of their local salt with imported salt the gross profit would increase from around £0.02 per kg to almost £0.70 per kg, an increase of more than 3,000%.
So it seems that there were significant financial gains to be made from substituting local salt with imported salt. On the other hand, there was also plenty to lose: soon after the investigation into the Hebridean Sea Salt company began, it ceased operation and its products were removed from the market. The company was soon liquidated.
The certificate forger
Like Ms Clayton, the former vice president of Creation Foods, Kefir Sadiklar faced an uncertain future after he and his family company were charged by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency over their supply of falsely described ‘kosher’ cheddar cheese to Jewish summer camps in 2015.
The company allegedly forged documents to make it appear that the cheese was kosher and put the forged documents inside boxes of non-kosher cheese. When the boxes of cheese arrived at one of the summer camps, an employee noticed that some of the boxes bore the COR symbol, a kosher certification trademark, and some did not. The employee requested clarification from Creation Foods, wanting to be sure that the cheese was fit to use at the camp.
According to information provided to investigators by the Kashruth Council of Canada, owner of the kosher trademark, Sadiklar provided two certificates. The first was for the wrong food while the second, supplied a few hours later, appeared to be correct.
However, the employee must have remained suspicious, because he sent the second certificate to the Kashruth Council, who noticed that it appeared to be a forgery: a single digit in the product code on the certificate had been altered to match the product code on the box of cheese. The council contacted the police who passed the case to the food inspection agency, which is responsible for enforcing food label laws in Canada. The resulting prosecution was the first of its type in Canada.
Creation Foods is a manufacturer of bakery products and also acts as a distributor for products made by other businesses, including the cheese it supplied to the summer camps.
Creation Foods was certified by the Kashruth Council in 2011 and permitted to use the council’s COR symbol on some of its food products. However, it appears to have a history of using the symbol on non-kosher products and was told to ‘cease and desist’ by the council in 2012 and again in 2013.
In 2013 the council issued an alert to businesses that had purchased cakes made by Creation Foods, claiming that the cakes were not kosher despite bearing a COR symbol on the pack and warning purchasers that Creation Food’s use of the symbol was unauthorised.
The allegations about Sadiklar and Creation Foods were damning; the company appeared to have been attempting to mislead its customers on a number of occasions over a period of years.
Interestingly, the price difference between the non-kosher and kosher versions of the brand of cheese involved is said to be just two to three percent. Does food fraud that increases profits by such a small margin generate enough extra income to justify the risks? Perhaps.
When very large volumes of food are involved, even tiny increases in margins can make a significant difference to a company’s bottom line, but that may not have been a factor in this case.
Perhaps the fraud was perpetrated to generate a little more profit from the summer camp order or perhaps Creation Foods had run out of kosher cheese and risked upsetting their customer by failing to fulfil the orders on time. Or perhaps the risk of facing any repercussions seemed so low that even a small monetary gain could somehow feel justified.
Sadiklar and Creation Foods initially denied any wrongdoing but the company was later fined CAD25,000, after pleading guilty to the charges.
The lamb suppliers who used turkey instead
Mahmudur Rohman and Kamal Rahman were convicted by a British court and sentenced to five years in gaol for conspiracy to commit fraud after Leicestershire food safety inspectors discovered that ‘lamb’ meat they supplied was actually turkey. The tests were conducted as part of a local testing protocol that was implemented after the European horse meat scandal of 2013.
Investigators from the trading standards office revealed that not only was the ‘lamb’ made from an entirely different animal, but the halal certificates it had been supplied with were forged. The company is estimated to have made profits of £300K – £400K during the period in which the frauds were occurring.
Walid Jamil was sued, along with ten of his associates, by an American energy drink company in 2017, which accused them of manufacturing and selling counterfeit copies of their 5-hour Energy drink.
Jamil already had a history of food fraud, having been implicated in an earlier scam in which counterfeit versions of Pillsbury products and the sweeteners Equal, Splenda and Truvia were manufactured in a facility in Michigan. No criminal or civil charges were placed against Jamil or his colleagues after that operation was uncovered, so it’s no surprise that he was willing to get involved with the energy drinks scheme.
Jamil and his associates were accused of making high-quality replicas of the energy drinks in an operation that manufactured around the clock and made about 1.5 million bottles each month, according to Geoffrey Potter, the lead counsel for the plaintiff.
The drinks were placed into legitimate distribution channels in the guise of diverted product or returns. So much counterfeit product was placed on the market that the brand owner’s sales decreased noticeably.
The fraud was discovered after a sales rep for the brand owner sent a suspicious bottle he found in a store to the company’s headquarters for analysis. According to the brand owner’s lawyer, when investigators found the fraudsters there was so much money changing hands that “they had to use shopping bags to pass it out.” (original source unfortunately de-published). Penalties of US$20 million were awarded against the fraudsters and their companies.
How to Spot a Fraudster
Food fraud perpetrators have different motivations and varying modes of operation, but there are some common characteristics that can indicate a person could be involved in food fraud:
Previous convictions, complaints and certification body investigations are major red flags. Two of the four examples in this article are people who had previously been caught in prior food frauds. One of the men responsible for much of the horse meat in ‘Horsegate’ had a previous conviction for the same type of meat fraud. Issue 85’s incident list and this week’s food fraud news also feature food fraud repeat offenders who have been caught with adulterated spices;
Suspect certificates. Two of the four examples in this story involved forged or faked certificates. A simple check of the certificate with the certification body revealed the kosher cheese fraud and a check of the halal ‘lamb’ certificates would have indicated a problem with the lamb. If you are suspicious about a certificate, check it.
Insider tip-offs, as occurred with the artisan salt fraud in this story, are an important source of food fraud intelligence (more about whistleblowing in next week’s issue).
Learn How to be a Foodborne Outbreak Investigator
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is teaching people how to be foodborne outbreak investigators on YouTube. Okay.
They have published a nine-minute video that appears to be aimed at food safety inspectors or ‘environmental specialists’ and aims to teach how to investigate the root causes of an outbreak and recommend appropriate control measures.
The level of assumed knowledge of food inspectors is quite (scarily) low.
The Amazing Origin Story of Ferrero and Nutella
The man who invented Ferrero Rocher chocolate balls also invented Kinder Surprise, Mon Cheri (liquor-containing chocolates) and TicTacs. He also owned the company and by all accounts was a remarkable man.
Today, we eat enormous amounts of his products. So much, in fact, that Ferrero Group uses one-third of the world’s hazelnut crop and Ferrero’s Kinder Surprise (the chocolate egg with a toy inside) is sold in such large volumes that Ferrero is said to be the world’s 3rd largest toymaker.
Read the remarkable story of Mr Michele Ferrero and his food empire here: https://trungtphan.com/the-36b-nutella-empire/
What you missed in last week’s email
· Good versus Bad – What Makes Mould (Mold) Edible?
· Meet the food fraud perpetrators
· News and Resources Roundup (they are doing what with sesame allergens?!!!)
· Child labour violations in food supply chains
· Food fraud news, incidents and updates
Below for paying subscribers: Food fraud news, incident reports, and emerging issues, plus an 🎧 awesome audio version 🎧 so you can catch up while on the go
📌 Food Fraud News 📌
Did you know that smuggling eels is more profitable than smuggling drugs or weapons?
A large international eel smuggling ring has
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